The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Guest Post: Invitation to the Past

Today Annie Whitehead, award-winning author of To Be A Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, takes up the reins with a lovely guest post, giving us a bit of background as to how she came to the world of the Mercians ….

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In the last piece, I was ‘chatting’ to Lord Ethelred of Mercia, and he asked me how I first ‘met’ him and his wife.

To Be a Queen came about because of a single sentence. My university tutor said of Ethelred of Mercia that “Nobody knew exactly where he came from.” I suddenly had a vision of this guy riding onto the pages of history out of some unknown hinterland. I wanted to write his story and, in a way, I have. Although of course the real story was that of his wife: daughter of a king, wife of a man with the powers of a king, a woman who led her army into battle against the Vikings.

aetheflaed-big-image
Statue of Æthelflæd with her nephew Æthelstan, son of Edward the Elder (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)

Aethelflaed was born around AD869 – we don’t know where – and was the eldest child of Alfred the Great of Wessex, and his wife, who was a Mercian princess.

Firstly, how does one pronounce her name? Some say Ethelfled, some say Athelflat. To be honest, I’m not sure, and there are other names in the book which are equally hard to pronounce and pretty difficult on the eye. So I changed a few of them, and gave others nicknames – like my heroine, who is called ‘Teasel’ by those who know her. Why? Ah, that would be telling. And it leads to some confusion early on, when her husband misunderstands…

It’s thought that Aethelflaed spent some of her early years in Mercia. At this time there were essentially four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: two of them, Northumbria and East Anglia, had already been overrun by the Danish Vikings and now those invaders were pushing at the borders of Mercia in the midlands. Mercia could not hold them off, caught as it was in a succession dispute.

Onto the pages of history, seemingly from nowhere, rode a nobleman called Ethelred, who was determined to re-establish Mercian independence.

Ethelred entered into alliance with Alfred of Wessex who gave him his eldest daughter, Aethelflaed, in marriage, probably around AD887. Although we don’t know the precise age of either of them, it is safe to assume that Ethelred was the elder of the two, by some distance. This cannot be imagined as anything other than a political marriage. Aethelflaed was a ‘peace-weaver’, and this could so easily have been another tale of a woman, married off, and quietly slipping between the pages of the chronicles.

The alliance between Mercia and Wessex held but, from AD902 onwards, Ethelred is no longer mentioned riding out into battle. We don’t know why; he continued to witness charters, so something was stopping him from fighting, but not from leading.

Closeup of Æthelflæd and Athelstan. (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)
Closeup of Æthelflæd and Athelstan (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)

AD907 found the Mercians defending Chester from a Viking siege. It was not another lord who took Ethelred’s place, but Aethelflaed who directed proceedings. An Irish chronicle has her fighting back with swarms of bees, which is more than likely  just a tale, but fun nonetheless. The Irish came to regard her as a queen, as did the Annales Cambriae, the Welsh chronicle.

After Ethelred’s death, no new male ruler was appointed. Edward (Aethelflaed’s brother, who was by this time king of Wessex) allowed his sister to retain control of Mercia.

Let’s consider what a unique story this is. In a time of almost perpetual warfare, a country and its neighbouring king were content to allow a woman to lead, even into battle. Whether or not she actually wielded a sword in anger, this is still remarkable. And yet, it was not remarked upon.

There are many stories to be found within Anglo-Saxon history. This was a society which produced the most exquisite artwork – the Lindisfarne Gospels – and the most intricately worked jewelled weaponry – the Staffordshire Hoard – hundreds of years  before the period in which Queen is set, and had a sophisticated system of government. My characters are not the inhabitants of Middle Earth. They are not mystical, magical or mythical, but rather they are medieval.

The Anglo-Saxons were very real, but I still needed to know how they lived. I immersed myself in my Early Medieval world, finding out about looms, textiles, cooking methods, flour production, and I even learned how flammable flour dust can be (a fact which served me well in one particular passage in Queen).

But research isn’t the only thing required: you have to decide where along the historical time-line to begin and end your tale. I decided that I needed to tell Aethelflaed’s whole life story; I think we are all a product of our childhood experiences, tempered by the wisdom gleaned from experiences as an adult, and I felt that we needed to know about her upbringing and the times she’d lived through if we hoped to understand how she came to be famous, and yet, bizarrely, forgotten.

It appears that the Mercians were happy to let a woman lead them, and not even a native one at that, so it must, in part, have been down to her personality.

She was a special woman. So why is she not better known?

I think there are two reasons: in fiction, the Anglo-Saxon age has suffered a little on account of those unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce names. In terms of non-fiction, history is written by the victors. No, not the Vikings, but the kingdom of Wessex. Mercia  ran out of kings and, after Aethelflaed’s ‘rule’, a merger was inevitable. Our greatest source of information, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was commissioned by Alfred the Great and written by monks of Wessex. Mercia was never going to get top billing.

But Aethelflaed is remembered fondly by some. There is a statue of her in Tamworth, the ancient Mercian capital, which was re-dedicated in 2013, 1100 years after she fortified the town, and where they still refer to her as “The Lady of the Mercians.”

commemoration
Base of the Æthelflæd statue, erected in 1913 to commemorate her fortification of Tamworth (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)

Still, I had to make sure not  to place my modern values on my character; she needed to live and work in her own world. Aethelflaed is a strong-minded woman, yes, but in writing her, I had to keep her firmly rooted in her early medieval environment. She’s a woman in a man’s world, but she’s not what we would recognise as a feminist.

Shortly before her death, delegates from the kingdom of York made an appeal to her for aid against the Norse armies of Ragnall. They had heard, as we do in the book, of her steely determination and single-mindedness.

In AD915 we not only have her location but the exact date – June 19th – when she took an army into Brycheiniog in Wales to avenge the killing of an abbot who was dear to her. And in AD917 she was in charge of the siege which resulted in Derby being returned into English hands. (As one of the ‘Five Boroughs’ of the Danelaw, it was strategically and symbolically an important victory.)

But, although she wouldn’t recognise the phrase, there is no gain without pain. Next time, an excerpt, from that siege at Derby…

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” continues next week with an excerpt from Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen.

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About the author …

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066: Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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Related post: “Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

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Image of the Week: The Hollow Hills (Book Cover)

This week’s “Image of the Week” entails a mixture of sorts: between a “Cover Crush” and look back in time, as well as my own experience of how an image can lead to something that touches one much more deeply. For it is the cover of Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills that initially beckoned to a teen me, transporting me deeper into the world of Merlin, surrounding me even more with the magic of his time.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my mother told me stories of Arthur and Merlin as I grew up, and was delighted to see The Crystal Cave on the booklist we received the summer before I began high school. We were meant to choose three works and be able to discuss and write about them during the school year—I rejected The Crystal Cave in favor of The Turn of the Screw. Disappointed, she purchased the books I listed, but also, unbeknownst to me, the entire Merlin Trilogy: the aforementioned initial installment as well as The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. I rolled my eyes when I saw them, but allowed her to line them up on my night table bookshelf anyway.

As it happens, I was a compulsively clean child and habitually performed such chores as pull my bed away from the wall to wipe down the floorboard or ensure there was no developing mark from the mattress. So it was that one day I pulled the table away from the wall to get at the dust behind it, when the books on the lower level attracted my attention—the shifting probably upset them—and I crouched to pick them off the floor.

(Click page for larger view)
(Click image for larger view)

It was a moment that lasted a couple of hours, for I glanced at the cover of The Hollow Hills—was it providence that I happened to pick that one up first?—and began to look deeply into the image as it motioned, called to me, pulled me toward the dusky swirl of a time I could easily melt into, felt I could become part of.

The figure on the cover was not difficult to take in. Handsome, with tousled red hair and rosy cheeks, he gripped a sword and held himself in a defiant stance, as if he were perceiving enemies in the distance and taking measure of his next actions. He seemed to me immensely strong, somewhat daunting, but still someone I wanted to be in the presence of. As a rather quiet child, my mind instinctively flew to the query of what birthed such potency, and I drew open the leaves.

It was Arthur, of course, and the second book in the series, but I do recall flipping through and reading passages here and there, wondering which one of them might tell me more about the world of such a man and how he came to be.

[B]elow me the grass, grey with rime, was barely distinguishable in the thick mist that held the whole place shrouded, from the invisible sea below the invisible cliffs to the pale blur where the winter sun fought to clear the sky. Below the blanket of mist the sea was quiet, as quiet as it ever was on that raging coast.

 Then, on the third night, the wind came. A small wind from the west, that crept across the battlements and in under the doors and set the flames fluttering blue round the birch logs.

As a reader, I had always been able to close my eyes and envision what the words communicated, as if I were watching a big screen behind my lids—at least most of the time—and the images in my mind on this day, brought forth by words more beloved than ever, were enchanting. The castle Tintagel I had dreamt of, the furious wind on a night portending the greatest event for the future of an empire. Something passed through my very soul on that afternoon, and I felt—in words as close as possible to the experience I lived—as if I had made a discovery of utmost importance, that I had uncovered something from my past and simply could not stop now. I must, I felt then, continue on this path and retrieve what it is I knew I had lost.

As I gazed once more upon the cover, the storm raging behind King Arthur seemed not unlike the one I had just witnessed, with a red sky over the castle, beckoning him to his destiny, the same he was directed to that squally night that the baby he, the one for whom the storm summoned, is carried away from his birthplace to his very purpose, to his future.

Why had I never been this mystified by the tales my mother told me? She was an able storyteller, and a gifted reader: her out-loud recitations of Poe were absolutely ghostly and filled with mysterious meaning. Well, she liked King Arthur—King Arthur—but she absolutely adored Poe, who I never took to quite as she did. Perhaps there was a connection between the darkness of his images and the ghosts she regularly told me about and I shrunk from. Her stories were delicious but frightening, and despite her assurances that the manifestations I frequently encountered couldn’t hurt me, I resented their invasion of my space (though I may not have had those words at the time) and how their almost-constant presence assaulted my very being. Only my room—the smaller one I had longed for years to move into, away from the large one I shared with my sister—offered a haven from them, and perhaps, in addition to natural inclination, was why I took such meticulous care of it.

I invited Merlin to my room. Merlin, protector of the future high king, magical, mysterious, occupant of memories that returned in a flood, present in a dissipating mist and the once invisible internal landscape existing amongst a raging sea.

The mist was lifting, drawing back from a sparkling sky. Faintly, high over the castle promontory, grew a hazy moon of light. Then the last cloud blew clear, billowing before the west wind like a sail blowing towards Brittany, and in its wake, blazing through the sparkle of the lesser stars, grew the great star that had lit the night of Ambrosius’ death, and now burned steady in the east for the birth of the Christmas King.

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An earlier edition of The Hollow Hills, with a smaller, but more complete, view to the castle behind Arthur.
An earlier edition of The Hollow Hills, with a smaller but more complete view to the castle behind Arthur.

“Month of Mary Stewart” concludes next weekend with a review for The Prince and the Pilgrim and a bit more from my own story of meeting with Merlin. 

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This post has been updated to include links to related entries.

Month of Mary Stewart: A Walk in Wolf Wood

A Walk in Wolf Wood: A Tale of Fantasy and Magic

by Mary Stewart

The cover for the copy of A Walk in Wolf Wood I read as a child
The cover for the copy of A Walk in Wolf Wood I read as a child

A Walk in Wolf Wood came my way owing to what my mother called “a great pairing”: medieval fantasy and child protagonists matched to my love for the era of Merlin and my then newly-minted Mary Stewart fangirl status. As young adult literature it also suited my age, and I was pleased to see magic wrapped up in the entire package as well. Even for children, Stewart knew how to present intrigue.

Our story opens to the setting of Schwartzwald, Germany’s Black Forest, just outside of which brother and sister John and Margaret are picnicking with their parents, who shortly afterward fall into a post-lunch slumber. As the heat settles around the party, lulling even the afternoon to sleep, the children see a man approach and then pass them, weeping, as his tears “poured down his face and dripped onto the faded red velvet of his coat.” The intuitive pair notice the unusual clothing, naturally, but in discussing it, reject the idea that he is a re-enactor or some other sort of role player. John has difficulty articulating his instinctive understanding that the dancers they’d seen at St. Johann’s were “just dressing up” and that the weeping man seemed to be accustomed to what he wore.

As readers of fantasy are aware, children are intrepid creatures and it doesn’t occur to them to simply watch events pass by—of course these two have to run after the weeping man and see what his story is! It’s practically a requirement—“It’s in the script,” my mother used to say—and the entire experience is better off for of it, especially today when children are much more regulated and corralled than they were in the not-so-distant past. Stewart couldn’t have foreseen the downside of mixing children with Internet, but she presents to them, and all of us for that matter, the magic of imagination and not just where it can take you, but also when.


“It’s not turkey. It’s swan. And that bit’s peacock. Meg, you should just see the way they do them up, all the feathers and tail, the lot! They’re fixing them up now in the kitchens, ready for supper. Just wait till I have time to tell you everything! But we’d better exchange news first. No, no one suspects me. I really came down to get out of joining the boys’ games in the courtyard!” He made a face. You should see them! Black eyes and broken noses are the least of it! It’s all war games, of course, mock fights and tilting at the quintain—that’a sort of tournament practice—and they really do hammer at it. The master-at-arms is in charge, and he’s really tough type. I don’t think I’d have lasted very long there!”


As it turns out, their imaginings and urge to follow the man lead John and Margaret to a house in the forest, where they eventually befriend the one they come to know as Mardian. Though he once had been servant and close friend of Duke Otho, an evil sorcerer called Almeric has placed a spell on him, and he is fated to a shapeshifting existence while the sorcerer has assumed Mardian’s identity at court. The real Mardian helplessly watches Almeric’s takeover plan successfully move from step to step toward its ultimate conclusion, a palace coup that would not only unseat the duke, but also eliminate him and his son, Prince Crispin, entirely. Only John and Margaret can change the course of this wicked plan, though to do so they must enter the castle and place themselves in Almeric’s very path.

While I have never been attracted to werewolf stories, for a reader with my preferences this one nevertheless works well because Stewart focuses on how the spell robs Mardian of his full life and forces him into a destructive existence that eats at his will to overcome it.

“[F]or a year and more I have been as I am now. By day I am still Mardian, but the night, as you have seen, forces the wolf-shape on me, and with it the wolf’s appetite and lust for blood. With sunrise the bloodlust goes, and my man’s shape and mind return, but the memories and the shame remain.”

 Throughout the novel Stewart also weaves an aura of enchantment that occasionally manifests itself in the children’s self-awareness and their conclusion that everything they are experiencing must certainly be a dream. How else could they have walked only a short distance into another time? Moreover, how is it they are able to communicate with Mardian, whose language is different to theirs? For this they conclude they in reality are asleep near to their parents, and they speak a “dream language” that enables communication.

Stewart provides answer for these questions, cleverly inverting the notion that we in the modern era are the sensible, cleverer people, and Mardian’s fourteenth century is populated by the backward and superstitious. Yearning for some explanation for their experiences, the children opt for the ages-old technique of finding an explanation, no matter how illogical, for their experiences and ascribing them to it, whereas Mardian directly faces the truth, counseling them that

“spell it is … and no dream, my dears, as you had hoped. This is real, as your own time is real, and there is suffering to be won or escaped from. It is for you to choose. Choice is man’s right, and for that I leave you free.”

 In this scenario, twentieth-century children seek to escape the possibility of sorcery and imagine an alternate reality to account for it, whereas Mardian explains it quite matter-of-factly, even hinting in rather modern fashion that the choice to remain in the state they have concocted or move away from is their own. It is he, not they, who is unafraid of the idea of mixing time, and he who references their native time without including their own travel within the realm of evil.

A magical cover image: flags flying at the castle, looking a bit Hansl and Gretl-like, getting friendly with the wolf. Stewart is a master at turning the familiar a bit inside out.

As a fantasy tale, A Walk in Wolf Wood more than stands on its own, for it also encompasses time travel and a sense of history, and speaks to the themes of royal life, treasonous activity and the bonds of true friendship. A young adult novel, it attracts grown-up readers as well with its rich descriptions and the storytelling magic fans of Stewart are accustomed to. Simple but not simplistic, it is an engaging read with just the right recipe to charm readers of various ages as they follow John and Margaret and where the enchantment will take all of them.

Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

 

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues later today with “Image of the Week” and concludes next week with a review for The Prince and the Pilgrim.

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

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This post has been updated to include links to related entries.

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Interview with Author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians

I am so very excited to announce: Since last week’s installment of “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen,” it has been announced that Annie Whitehead’s second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, has been awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion. Another well-deserved honor for this fantastic author! (And I get to add it to her bio below!)

Congratulations, Annie Whitehead!!!

Interview between author Annie Whitehead and

Ethelred, Lord of the Mercians

The author (Annie) and her character (Ethelred, Lord of the ancient kingdom of Mercia) are seated in the great hall at Worcester. He is nursing a gold cup which we assume is filled with wine, while she, having a 21st century palate, has declined to drink, finding Anglo-Saxon wine too sweet for her taste. They are discussing someone whom they both know very well – Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians.

Annie: I suppose the thing that binds us is that we both love and admire her?

Ethelred: I didn’t know her like you knew her, not in the early days. Where did you find out about her character, where did that come from?

Annie: It wasn’t easy. A great deal has been written about her famous father…

Ethelred: My ally, Alfred the Great.

Alfred the Great took back the city with the aid of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians (Image courtesy Annie Whitehead)

Annie: Yes, except the historians didn’t see you so much as allies, more that you were subservient to him.

Ethelred: I wasn’t a king.

Annie: Exactly. And Alfred was a king who valued literacy. He commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and much was written in them about him and his reign. Less so about his daughter, and even less about her early life. But I pieced it together – In Asser’s Life of Alfred, it is implied that she grew up away from the Wessex court.

Ethelred: In Mercia. At least until the Vikings came banging on our door.

Annie: I never did find out much about your early life, but I guess that you, being older, had your part to play in fighting off those attackers.

Ethelred: I didn’t make that part easy for you, did I? And you know that I don’t like to talk about those years.

Annie: Aethelflaed’s attitude to you changed when she found out, though, didn’t it?

Ethelred: It brought us closer, yes.

Ethelred pauses. He takes a sip of his drink, and twirls the goblet in his fingers before he continues. The author knows that he is a man of few words, and that this episode is painful to recall. He changes the subject, but not to a happier story.

Ethelred: She loved another. When she wed me, her heart was with him still.

Annie: Yes.

Ethelred: You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?

Annie: I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have been doing my job as a storyteller if I had revealed everything.

Ethelred: You told the readers.

Annie: Yes, but I couldn’t tell you. Would it have made any difference? Would you still have married her?

Ethelred: Yes, I would have married her, I had to. It was a seal on the alliance. In any case, it didn’t take me long to guess. She did not have the maturity to hide her true feelings, not then. But I felt for her – it was difficult for her, I know, to love one and be wed to another. And to be sent away from her home. I admired her courage.

Annie: You were patient, and you taught her well. Surely you will take some credit for that?

Ethelred: I think that she had an enquiring mind. And she lived with a fear, that drove her actions, always. She knew that she had a duty, to her people, and to do whatever it took to keep the invaders away. How was it for you – writing her from a child to a woman? She changed a lot.

Æthelred is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great
Æthelred is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great (Wikimedia Commons) (click image)

Annie: You’re avoiding the question. Yes, she grew up. I dug deep, researched thoroughly, and put as many obstacles in her way as I could. I like to think I encouraged her to learn from her mistakes. I had a sense that I knew what sort of person she would be, based on her life experiences and her actions as an adult.

Have you heard that advice about how the time comes to put away childish things? No, of course you haven’t, that was written much after your lifetime. But that’s what she did, you know, she put away her childish notions. And she watched you, very intently. Did you ever feel her scrutiny?

Ethelred: Sometimes I caught her looking at me. I thought it would be wise to stand back, to wait for her to settle down to her new life. At times I despaired, but I had a job to do, and that distracted me. Then, when I was ready to give up hope that she could ever care for me, she came to me, offered me her support. And her love. Although, sometimes, there was doubt…

Annie: How was it for you, having to hand over the reins? You had to give a warrior’s worries to a woman.

Ethelred: Strange question. Ah well, I suppose that to you it was unlikely – yes, she was a woman, but it was the obvious choice to us in Mercia. You see, she had already done her share of fighting; she had fought to win over the people, to make them accept her, and they loved her for never giving up on them. We were a team by that point. She was the right person to lead in my stead. And she still came to me for advice, you know. Even after…

It seems like neither the author nor the character wish to think about the end of that sentence. So the author sits forward and smiles.

Annie: It was nice for me to travel with her from her childhood all the way to when she became, frankly, a tired and grumpy woman who began to lose her patience!

Ethelred: You see? You wouldn’t have got that from a man – she had such inventive ways of dealing with the enemy! I bet you had fun researching those stories?

Annie: I did, as a matter of fact. Those who did write about her furnished me with a lot of anecdotes.

Ethelred: I watched her grow, too. From quite a petulant girl, albeit with justification, to a loving and courageous woman. I can’t believe though that at first you had intended to write my story, rather than hers.

Annie: It’s true though. You were a hard one to track down. Where did you even come from? I think I should leave you to your wine – you probably have an evening of feasting and riddle-solving to look forward to – and I’ll tell the tale of how I met you and your wife in the next part of this series.

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” continues next week with author Annie Whitehead’s discussion on how she became acquainted with the Mercians and their world. 

Upcoming: My review of Alvar the Kingmaker

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About the author …

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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Month of Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave

September 17, 1916

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mary Stewart, beloved author of such blockbusters as Madam, Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting. With the “Month of Mary Stewart” series we honor the novelist and mark her fantastic presence in our lives, noting some of the special gifts she has presented to us over the years.

Today I take a look at what is my absolute favorite of all her works, possibly not fully articulating how it has translated into a lifelong gift for me, one whose rewards have been immeasurable. My effort is small, though I hope this month’s presentations are worthy of being but a small token, or gift, back to this wonderful storyteller whose tales live on.

Lady Mary Stewart, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

The Crystal Cave (Book I in The Arthurian Saga)

by Mary Stewart

It’s a little strange to imagine that The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart’s mega-bestselling Arthurian novel, made her publishers nervous. She’d been on a best-selling run with her romance-mysteries and they didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. But she took her cue from Geoffrey of Monmouth (admitting in her afterward that his name is mud), re-positioned the Arthurian tales within the fifth century and zoomed the focus in on Merlin, as opposed to Arthur.

merlin-as-a-boyAs the novel opens we meet Merlin, an old man, then, not long after, return via first-person narrative to his sixth year when his uncle returns to court. His grandfather, the king, has for years been trying to learn who Merlin’s father is but Niniane, his mother,  isn’t telling. The boy’s small stature and uncanny ability to know too much, along with the circumstances of his birth, mark him as a “devil’s whelp,” and his name, Myrddin Emrys, is a source of wry amusement, as Emrys means “child of light.”

Much of Merlin’s information comes from overhearing conversation while crawling under the floors of what was once a Roman country house, the heating system not being used by the palace’s current inhabitants. But he also is in the habit of visiting the cave of an old hermit, Galapas, whose education of the boy includes helping him develop his psychic gifts, some of which are demonstrated when we encounter the aged Merlin in the first pages, performing “one of the simplest of magics, the most easily learned, the last forgotten.” Galapas also teaches him to more clearly see events within the crystal cave that lies just beyond his own.

The king’s accidental death leads to a series of chaotic events that set Merlin on his path away from his native Maridunum and eventually to the court of Ambrosius Aurealianus, whom he assists in his preparation to defeat the Saxon Vortigern and unite Britain. In the course of these events he is captured by Vortigern and readers encounter what is perhaps one of the best-known episodes in Arthurian legend, that of the warlord’s collapsing fortress.

Every day, Vortigern’s builders and engineers construct their citadel, but each night it collapses. His priests tell him the only way to end the cycle is to sprinkle across it the blood of a boy with no father. The legends have various settings and circumstance of Merlin’s capture, though all involve the Saxon soldiers overhearing a companion of Merlin commenting on his fatherless status and swiftly taking custody. Stewart’s version, too, involves such a scenario, and it is worked into the narrative so seamlessly it comes as much of a surprise to readers as to Merlin himself; the idea of a writer working it into the storyline seems like another author’s task, because here it seems to simply happen.

Merlin is quick to understand that the caves below Vortigern’s fortress upset its foundation, but pretends to use the Sight to see two battling dragons and, utilizing “no power beyond his human wits,” advises as to the solution.

I pointed downwards. Below the surface something—a rock, perhaps—glimmered faintly, shaped like a dragon. I began to speak slowly, as if testing the air between us.

Merlin transitions into a frenzy even he doesn’t quite understand at the moment, and awakens to Cadal, his servant, who reiterates events.

“It was all dressed up, like poets’ stuff, red dragons and white dragons fighting and laying the place waste, showers of blood, all that kind of thing. But it seems you gave them chapter and verse for everything that’s going to happen: the white dragon of the Saxons and the red dragon of Ambrosius fighting it out, the red dragon looking not so clever to begin with, but winning in the end. Yes. Then a bear coming out of Cornwall to sweep the field clear….Artos…Arthur…some name like that.”

This passage demonstrates one of Stewart’s most skilled approaches to writing her Merlin, and a major reason why hers is the favorite interpretation of millions. Her Merlin is self-effacing, scoffs at the idea that he uses magic, even claiming at times that what men believe to be magic is mere disguise. We don’t necessarily believe him, and he seems to understand this, and accept it, if somewhat begrudgingly.

Later Merlin uses his same engineering skills, savvy understanding—and a bit of magic—to rebuild Stonehenge and bring Uther Pendragon to assignation with the Lady Ygraine, subject of the monarch’s obsession.

Merlin tells Vortigern of the two dragons fighting beneath his fortress, causing them to collapse after being built (Wikimedia Commons) (Click image)
Merlin reveals to Vortigern the two dragons fighting beneath his fortress, causing them to collapse after being built (Wikimedia Commons) (Click image)

Remaining events of the legend are left yet to be told because there are two more books in the series, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. I can recall approaching the end of The Crystal Cave the first time I read it, without a care about a fabulous book about to end, because I had two more still ahead of me, and I’ve heard told time and again of similar experience of others having read this novel.

Even today, reading years after I first dipped into it, Stewart’s descriptive powers remain as potent as ever and the legend fresh and captivating. Unlike so many other portraits of the wizard, this one depicts a Merlin who reaches out from the ages to put paid to the talk questioning his actual existence. His narrative recounts historical events and his part of them as if we are reading actual history (minus the dry parts), and Stewart welcomes us in, as we become one with events and the people who played their roles within them.

Especially for those keen on filling in some of the blanks in their knowledge of Arthurian legend pertaining to Merlin, The Crystal Cave offers a fantastically well laid out plot that also brings life to Merlin’s origins and how he came to be. Stewart’s choice of first-person is perfect as well, as we are able to really get into the heart of who Merlin is, how his perceptions and talents were shaped and what drives him. Though I’d been told stories of Merlin my whole life until I first read The Crystal Cave, and indeed had great regard for him already, Mary Stewart gave much more of Merlin, and I have dearly loved him ever since.

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“Month of Mary Stewart” continues next week with a review for A Walk in Wolf Wood.

Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

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This post has been updated to include links to related entries.

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Book Review: To Be A Queen

To Be A Queen: The Lady of the Mercians

by Annie Whitehead

Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice Award Spring Quarter 2015

Long listed for Historical Novel Society Indie Book of the Year 2016

and

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

Daughter of Alfred the Great. Sister to Edward the Elder. Joined in marriage with Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. Æthelflæd was many things to many people, though today she is little known even by any status she held solely by being related to someone in power, including her much-revered father, who defeated the Vikings in the 878 Battle of Edington and began the drive to unify England into one country. With To Be A Queen, Annie Whitehead tells Æthelflæd’s story—how she distinguishes herself by winning the loyalty of her adopted homeland as Lady of the Mercians and the only woman to lead an Anglo-Saxon army and kingdom—restoring her to the annals of those who fiercely defended freedom for herself and her people.

to-be-a-queenBorn to the West Saxon King Alfred and Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian nobleman, Æthelflæd spent her childhood on the run from Vikings, whose invasions at that time had reached their peak. Her parents were likely married as part of an alliance between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, as she later would be when wed to Æthelred. In childhood, though, she had been sent to be fostered at the Mercian court, where her auntie, Alfred’s sister, had been married to Burgred, also as part of an alliance.

Whitehead opens the novel with a haunting passage depicting the five-year-old Æthelflæd woken by a nightmare, only to realize her serving-woman is stowing all her belongings. She seeks out her auntie, also engaged in frenzied nocturnal packing, and learns she is being sent back to her native Wessex to escape the approaching Vikings, while her uncle and auntie prepare to flee over the sea.

Here Whitehead engages Catheresque symbolism within the child’s understanding of the north, where she once ran through the delicate carpet of bluebells, now being violently ground down by serpent-dragons, once again becoming part of the earth’s design. It is also significant that Burgred’s wife remains nameless, as she herself acknowledges when she presents a hypothetical to the little girl: “What can I tell a five-year-old who will grow up to forget that I ever lived?” Here is born within Æthelflæd’s being the understanding of what it is to be a queen, a legally unattainable or politically unsustainable status, and the ache of lost memory that her auntie has already realized, in all senses of the word.

England at the time of Æthelred (Wikimedia Creative Commons, courtesy philg88) (click image)

Following this our story skips ahead a few years when Æthelflæd is dubbed “Teasel” by her Uncle Wulf, after the plant of the same name. There is more flight from and armed conflict with Vikings, but the narrative settles down significantly, and as the girl grows, we witness her infatuation with a man to whom marriage becomes a lost dream when Alfred marries Teasel to Æthelred (Ethelred), the much older and somewhat distant Lord of the Mercians. Despite her maternal connection to Ethelred’s homeland, the people do not take to Teasel and for quite a while she remains stuck in a cycle of self-pity and determination to bear her misery in order to please her husband and win the affection for her she believes might flower within him.

I was intrigued to read through their first and subsequent evenings together, written without any of the “typical” love scenes readers have come to expect—for better or worse—in historical fiction. Avoiding potential pitfalls of the union between the self-assured man considerately teaching his timid new wife how to engage—and even that of the progressive royal husband immediately spilling state information to his bride, facilitating reader response to include the notion that medieval men aren’t so bad after all—Whitehead chooses instead to develop their relationship over time and via dialogue that reveals her mastery in writing complex characters.

Medieval miniature of Æthelflæd in Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England, 14th century (Provided by author, Wikimedia Commons) (click image)

In one of Whitehead’s finest passages—and this is a difficult choice, given the immense dexterity she wields with words—her characters’ actions, contemplations and dialogue illuminate identity and misunderstanding of it, along with the struggle to communicate effectively. At Ethelred and Teasel’s wedding banquet, the pair are next to each other, but Teasel elects to play “the game” as she sees it, whereby she is “but one of the prizes, a token to be held up and admired … [therefore] she was not surprised to find herself virtually ignored[.]” She asks her husband’s permission to donate leftover food to the poor, admires his responding smile as he acquiesces, and then turns to her mother, a few moments later hearing Ethelred resume his conversation with Alfred. As this is a marriage of alliance, she believes her husband uninterested in affection, thus “free to journey with her thoughts and speak only when spoken to.”

The author then moves readers to observe circumstances from the eyes of Ethelred, a spot where, as a novelist the opposite sex to the character, things could get tricky. However, Whitehead shows once more her ingenuity in being an observer of people as she brilliantly speaks for a man and pulls it off, not only with the amusement of a joke about an ugly princess and gratitude that his own wife is attractive, but also revealing in plausible fashion that he too longs for more than mere beauty: a connection, “[a] warm presence by the fire on a cold night and a companion to talk with was no less than any man’s basic desire.” Ethelred encounters Wulf, who seems to read his mind.

“So, you will take her back to Gloucester and hope she warms to your ways, eh?”

 Ethelred grunted. “It does not seem likely. It was a fitting name that you gave her, for she is, indeed, prickly.” He nodded back towards the hall. “She spoke to me but once in there and that was only to tell me that she was not hungry.”

 Wulf stroked his beard and frowned. “Prickly? I do not …” He slapped his forehead and laughed. “I see, I see. No, you have it wrong. I named her Little Teasel for she would always come to sit upon my lap, and there she would comb my beard for me. And what is another name for a teasel? Wolf’s comb.” Now he was laughing so violently at his own joke that he had to lean forward and rest his hands on his knees. “My friend, you will have to find another reason for her lack of warmth towards you.”

Not long after, Teasel speaks with Alhelm, the man she had loved and hoped to marry, revealing her great unhappiness in all she has lost to make the move to Mercia for her arranged marriage. “It is not what you have lost,[”] he counsels her,”] but what you will not give up which might hinder you in the days to come.”

While admittedly a longer than usual review space given to one segment in a novel, this juxtaposition of perspectives, more deeply demonstrating distinctive awareness and how it affects each individual, bears telling and (hopefully) does justice to what it aims to reflect: Whitehead’s patient combing through of the knotted threads of relationships and illumination of the psychology of communication. That she does it so seamlessly is the first marvel, the next is how she winds the smoothed-out threads in and amongst documented historical reality, what is likely to have been the case, and her own imagination, in itself far reaching and brilliantly colored. Moreover, there are many more marvels to encounter as Teasel’s story continues.

One such is Whitehead’s charming and exquisite application of words: to tell a story, certainly, though it goes far beyond mere employment. We learn of Teasel’s growth and begin to trace the threads of her childhood as they tie together into the adult she becomes. Having spent her childhood running, with the Vikings—as her brother Edward will later complain—defining their lives, she recalls the nightmares and flight of her auntie, who, indeed, she barely remembers. Is this to be her fate, and that of her people? To be overrun by serpentine invaders who mingle with her kin until they are wiped out not only by bloodlines, but also from memory? She contemplates once more the status of queen: her auntie once occupied the spot she now does, as queen, though Teasel herself is a queen in all but name. She thoughtfully considers what it means to be a queen and the importance of the duties, not only the title that goes with it.

Charter S 221, dated 901, of Æthelred and Ætheflæd, rulers of the Mercians (Wikimedia Commons) (click image)
Charter S 221, dated 901, of Æthelred and Ætheflæd, rulers of the Mercians (Wikimedia Commons) (click image)

Whitehead’s battle scenes are often drawn for readers by the characters themselves: in discussion and questioning their own and others’ ideas; direct hits and grotesque mistakes; action depicted in a manner that facilitates reader visualization of events as they occur; and her word choice—I remembered once more how it was I fell in love with the art of battle as I lived these scenes, dodging harrowing moments and contemplating “the sparkling clash of metal meeting its own kind.” I heard the ting ting, felt the swoosh of air to the side and my heart raced, as did my eyes, across the pages, in part to escape heated combat and also in my anxiety to see how it all plays out.

The effect of many passages within To Be A Queen also mirrors that one experiences when reading poetry—an awe at how an emotion is expressed or event depicted: few words, often subtle, paired with prose that may seem unlikely yet reverberate. There were many times within when I stopped to re-read passages, even instances of grief, owing to the manner of presentation. It truly is magnificent when a writer can elicit in readers the desire to experience the passage again, especially if it depicts the grievous:

[His] withered chest rose up with a struggle one final time, gasping the air in, rasping it out. The silence that followed was an unwelcome peace for those still breathing and they all gave expression to their grief, filling the air with the sounds of the living.

Knowing how few records still exist regarding Æthelflæd and her time, Whitehead’s dexterity with the smoothing of historical facts, the reconciliation of imagined motives, events, responses and alliances is impressive indeed, and readers drink up the richness of the period detail with a thirst created by the very narrative that quenches it. I do not tend to employ phrases praising authors’ historical research, typically because as a non-historian I cannot verify its veracity. However, upon doing a bit of reading and research of my own on Æthelflæd, it certainly comes out winning. Everything I could find matches all of Whitehead’s possibilities, and that I was moved to do this in itself is a testament to her ability to write characters readers care about. In the end it matters to us that Æthelflæd be brought from the shadows of time, and her rightful place established.

For a very few it was never lost. The historical figure of Æthelflæd is remembered today, though on a more local level, a reality Teasel herself might find stinging as she recalls a long-ago comment made by a woman she has largely forgotten, even while the statement may have instigated her drive to become who she is. As the historian in the author tells Teasel’s story, the artist in her sprinkles imagery through the novel in the form of bluebells, which speak of everlasting love, found in Teasel’s dedication to her people and their future.

These people remember her with gratitude, as did others before them, as a queen, even though the historical Æthelflæd was never officially styled as such. Nevertheless, her devotion to and defense of the Mercians, before and after Æthelred’s death, including up against her own brother, earned it for her. Moreover, even the Irish and Welsh annals refer to her as a “renowned Saxon queen.” And, as the author points out, Æthelred and Æthelflæd also signed charters in their own right. Monarch Æthelflæd may not officially have been but, as Whiteheads’s title points to, her entire life was driven by the strictures and responsibilities of what it means to be a queen.

Thoroughly accessible, To Be A Queen is entertaining, poignant, masterful and a work of art about a remarkable woman readers will never forget, from an author we’ll long to hear from again.

Gold finger ring that belonged to Æthelswith, Queen of Mercia and 's auntie. (Courtesy British Museum) (click image for further details))
Gold finger ring that belonged to Æthelswith, Queen of Mercia and Æthelflæd’s auntie. (Courtesy British Museum) (click image for further details)

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” continues next week with an interview between the author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians

Upcoming: My review of Alvar the Kingmaker

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About the author …

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready.

She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, TwitterFacebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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The blogger was supplied with a copy of To Be A Queen in order to provide an honest review. 

Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin

Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

“Then she saw me watching her. For perhaps two seconds our eyes met and held. I knew then why the ancients armed the cruellest god with arrows; I felt the shock of it right through my body.”—Merlin, The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

250px-beguiling_of_merlin
Vivian (Nimue) reads from a book of spells as she enchants Merlin into a deep sleep. (Wikimedia Commons)

O, Merlin, who moved the great Dance of the Giants

You, who brought Uther to beget the son of the earth

Enchanter, who, with the stars had an alliance

To be Arthur’s counsel, to bring meaning to his birth

O, bard, ensconced in the absence of Time

By the Lady of the Lake

But whilst, for you, the bluebells chime

Are you nevermore to wake?

Excerpted from “Whither Merlin” by Lisl Zlitni ©2016